The Star-Ledger

Christie Sitting On Federal Grant Funds Given To Help Explain Obamacare, Critics Say

New Jerseyans need more help from the Christie administration to understand the new health care law.

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, December 4, 2013

By Kathleen O'Brien / The Star-Ledger

The Christie administration's failure to use $7.6 million in federal money to help explain Obamacare to New Jerseyans has left them confused about their options, a coalition of consumer groups said today.

"The governor continues to pass the ball. His passivity really is a problem for consumers. They're not hearing what they need to hear," said Maura Collinsgru, health policy advocate at New Jersey Citizen Action.

Christie's spokesman batted away the criticism, pointing to the governor's previously expressed disdain for the coalition's Democratic ties.

Last week, the governor decided to let the state's insurers decide whether to revive the health plans that face cancellation because they are too skimpy to meet Obamacare's new standards.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, which sells the lion's share of the "Basic & Essential" plans bought by 109,000 individuals, already announced that it will be discontinuing those policies once they expire.

Changing them to comply with Obamacare — by doing away with annual limits on tests, doctor visits, and preventive care, for example — would make them so expensive most existing policy-holders would be unable to afford them, the insurer said.

Most consumers have no need to panic, said Raymond Castro, senior policy analyst for the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank. Just 1 percent of New Jerseyans have the so-called "barebones" policies that may disappear, forcing them to buy a different policy or pay a fine.

Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), chairwoman of the state Senate Commerce committee. has scheduled a hearing today to discuss the Christie administration's decision to let insurance companies make those decisions themselves.

Castro stopped short of accusing Gov. Christie of trying to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, saying the administration was not doing anything deliberate to undermine its implementation.

"It's more like passive-aggressive," he said, noting the state Department of Banking and Insurance is doing little to publicize and explain residents' new health-insurance options.

Instead, people have heard a constant drumbeat of complaints about the law and its implementation.

"So in a way we have a negative outreach program," he said. "And it just further discourages people from coming into the (ACA) marketplace, and confuses them."

When asked for a response, a Christie's spokesman, Colin Reed, referred reporters to a remark the governor made in September about the group: "Listen, I really don't care what Policy Perspective thinks. I mean these are the architects of the failed Corzine administration economic policies....The good news for the state is they have no effect on state policy."

Marshall McKnight, spokesman for the Department of Banking and Insurance, which received the $7.6 million grant, said, "We continue negotiations with the federal government on the allowable uses of this grant money." He refused to answer further questions.

They may not know those policies don't all lapse at the end of this year. Instead, each policy expires a year after renewal, so someone who signed up for a "basic and essential," or B&E plan this past June can keep it until next June.

Collinsgru said even though consumers holding B&E plans could still renew them through Dec. 31, most could likely get better insurance on the Obamacare marketplace, with a majority qualifying for a federal tax credit to help them pay for it.

Subsidies are available on a sliding scale for people with incomes below $45,960 for individuals, and $94,200 for a household of four.

Another affordable option for those under the age of 30 — who have flocked to the B&E plans because of their relative low cost — is a new catastrophic plan on the Obamacare marketplace.

The coalition also says that given New Jersey's high cost of living, the state should consider giving out additional subsidies beyond those of Obamacare to help its residentspay for good insurance.

It recommends paying for this by using millions in federal money flowing into the state budget as an incentive for expanding Medicaid.

"The state really needs to step up to the plate," Castro said.

Star-Ledger staff writer Ed Beeson contributed to this report.

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